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Blind Faith

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Photographs: Offside/L'Equipe

There’s a moment you know is coming, but that never ceases to take you by surprise. It’s that moment when you pass beyond the last suburban streetlamp’s pool of illumination. For an instant, you are flying blind until your eyes’ accommodation reflex adjusts to the light of the beam of your bar-mounted torch. But all the peripheral visual information is gone. 
You have to focus on the narrow oval of the visible in front of you, for safety’s sake. Looking into what’s lit deprives you of the ability to see anything in the darkness to the side. At most, depending on the weather and phase of the moon, you might be aware of a darkness of midnight blue above you, as opposed to a darkness of undifferentiated blackness to either side and behind.
You may know the road well, but now not recognise it. Or you may recognise it, but all the usual visual cues — the contour of a hill in the distance, the angle of a fence or tree line closer at hand — are absent. The landscape you know has gone. Or rather, it has become theoretical: an idea of a landscape, which you know to be there but whose existence you cannot verify. 
Night riding has this quality of philosophical conundrum. It’s not just that you’re confronted with the absence of the normal suite of sensory data; it’s also that what you still have is such a narrow and constricted aperture on reality that you can feel strangely unmoored from the usual rules of perception and physics. 
Beside your own vital signs, all you know is what now unreels before you in the beam of your bike light: the textured grey of the blacktop spooling by beneath your front wheel, the ever-converging but never meeting parallels of the edge of the road and the painted white lines, occasional random objects hard to identify until already receding into the dark unknown behind you: a leaf, a crushed can, roadkill, a pockmark in the pavement. 
But even this rolling scene has an air of unreality or epistemological uncertainty: how do you know it’s real and out there? It looks just as if your lamp is not merely a light source, but a projector that is throwing this picture in front of you in a cool, dark theatre. Who’s to say you’re not simply riding into a grand illusion created by moving images?
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We started riding in the dark this autumn as an alternative to our usual early-morning laps of the park, where it’s advisable to use flashing LEDs, but no serious lumens are needed to see the roadway. Even where the street lighting is sparse, there is so much spillover from the city’s light pollution that you never have trouble seeing where you are going. All the familiar park features are still there, if indistinctly outlined. 
But what began of necessity soon turned into a choice, even became a little compulsive. On the face of it, there was nothing new or unfamiliar about our route: out and back on 9W, the two-lane highway that is the main artery for recreational cyclists getting out of the city. Because it’s parallel to the larger, faster Palisades Parkway, 9W gets merely local traffic for the most part, even at commuter hours. So it is relatively safe, and largely unlit by car headlights, for our nocturnal training rides. 
You need a small group of riders you can trust when you’re riding pace line in the dark. To follow a wheel when all you can see is that wheel and the backside of the rider in front, you must have a smooth, steady tempo and know you can rely utterly on hand signals for any hazards. To ride on a wheel in the dark is to experience perhaps more intensely the sensory deprivation of night riding: the back of the rider in front, his rear wheel spinning in the frame, and his flashing red rear LED, are so intensely lit that you can barely see the road itself. 
Sometimes, the lack of external reference points makes it almost hard to tell which way is up. You have no horizon. You’re like a pilot flying on instruments; your instruments are the rider in front. It is an exercise in pure belief.
Perhaps it is that that makes our pre-dawn night rides so exhilarating. Even our 40-minute relay on this stretch of road we all know too well seems like an adventure, a trip to the unknown. When you ride that route at the weekend, during the day, you know you’re riding through stretches of woods and rough country, but you’re also well aware that you never stray far from the suburbs. You’re rarely more than 15 minutes from a coffee shop, or a gas station, or a golf course. 
In the dark, all that changes. Suddenly, the gradual shading from urban to suburban to rural becomes a sharp fault line of the lit and the unlit. Perhaps, at some level, the ancient atavistic meaning of darkness in human culture reasserts itself. As you ride into the black night, you apprehend a deep divide between civilisation and nature. Maybe, then, our night-riding high comes from a shared sense of safe return from a visit to the other side.
By the time we get back to the bridge, we’re riding into the pale light of dawn. And there it is, the city — vast, ugly and magnificent — as if to say: Did you really doubt me?
Originally published in 1 issue 52

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